NY Quality of Counsel Settlment May be Template for National Reform

This blog has been following the New York quality of defense counsel case.  Last week, perhaps in part because of the filing of a statement of interest by US DOJ, the parties, just before trial, have come to a proposed settlement, which is now to be presented to the judge for approval (assuming certain other things drop into place, as expected). Here is the settlement proposal.  Here is the NY Times description of the five county case,which nonetheless has many statement elements.

The state agreed to cover the costs of hiring more defense lawyers, investigators and expert witnesses to improve the defense for the indigent in the five named counties. The Cuomo administration agreed to establish standards for how many cases each public defense lawyer could handle in those counties and to provide resources to reduce caseloads to those levels.

Moreover, the state agreed to assume the final responsibility for making sure people who cannot afford lawyers are well represented, rather than leaving the task to county governments.

. . .

The settlement would run seven and a half years. It requires the state to guarantee that within 20 months, all poor defendants in the five counties have defense lawyers at their first appearance. Ten months later, public defender caseloads must not exceed levels set by the state.

Less emphasized in the Times is the extensive role that the Proposed Settlement would give to the Office of Indigent Legal Services, which would responsible for establishing statewide indigency determination requirements, setting quality standards for counsel, setting caseload standards, as well as monitoring and moving forward with many aspects of the settlement.  The settlement provides for state funding of these functions.

Having worked for many years in Massachusetts with the head of the office, Bill Leahy, when he ran the Public Counsel Division of that state’s integrated public defender system (he later came to run the whole system), I have absolute and complete faith in his ability to take full advantage of this unique opportunity to create a high quality statewide system.  I hope I will not embarrass the genuinely humble Bill too much when I reveal that one of my teachers at Harvard, one who taught many of the current generation of legal leaders, once described Bill as one of the best students he had ever had.  Bill is one of those rare lawyers whom the opposition sees sort of wandering around the case — till suddenly their case has slipped through their fingers and there is Bill with an almost inevitable “not guilty”.  It was never about Bill, always about the result.

At the national level, this very high profile case, with its clear programmatic solutions and enforcement mechanism, and its strong DOJ role, is likely dramatically to shift the playing field when it comes to other similar cases around the county.  I suspect that the DOJ role is likely to be repeated.

In particular the result in this case emphasizes the need for a strong state and statewide role, even when the system is decentralized, and for state funding to solve problems and provide leadership.  That might be something to consider for those civil community-based legal aid programs that still resist moving to a statewide model.

P.S.  Lots more information about the settlement now online at the OILS site.

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About richardzorza

I am deeply involved in access to justice and the patient voice movement.
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  1. Pingback: Assessing the Appropriateness of ATJ Innovations | Richard Zorza's Access to Justice Blog

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